Is Star Trek Tech Possible?

Contributed by
Jul 2, 2015
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My friend Veronica Belmont is pretty cool. Nerd, writer, TV host … and now she’s doing an online video series with Engadget called “Dear Veronica”, where she answers tech/geek questions sent in by viewers. It’s a lot of fun.

In this week’s episode, she was asked, “Which Star Trek technologies will still be invented? Which are truly impossible and will never happen?”

Hey, I like Star Trek! So I’m really glad she asked me to field this question.

That was fun to record. But it was hard, too, since I only had 30 seconds, which didn’t give me much time to really dig deep.

But hey, I have space on the blog (haha—“space”! I kill me) so why not give a little more detail here?

Before we get started: Almost everything below is conjecture, based on physics as we know it. But I’m not an expert in all these fields, and I’ve been known to be wrong before. If you have better evidence, please let me know! Also, I’m assuming no major breakthroughs that negate or heavily modify the laws of physics as we see today. Keep that one in mind. All of these might be possible, but would involve huge breakthroughs that seem pretty unlikely to me—still, I'm no curmudgeon, and I'd love to see any of these technologies come true. I’m also trying to be brief here, to cover a lot of the quadrant. If you want details, Commander Riker might have already looked it up for you.

So let’s leave spacedock and take these ideas out for a shakedown cruise.

FTL

There are lots of problems with the idea of going faster than light. You can’t just accelerate past it like you can the speed of sound; it would take infinite energy according to relativity. And relativity tends to be right.

Other ideas include making a warp bubble, or punching a hole through space, or wormholes, but they all still have the same problem: causality. Moving faster than light is like time travel, and that opens up an entirely new can of Gagh.

So, I’m giving this a Nope until proven otherwise.

Transporters

In Trek, they’ve said many times that the transporter works by converting someone to energy, beaming that across space, and then re-matterizing them. The problem with this is that converting a standard red-shirted human body (say, 50–70 kilograms) into energy is the equivalent of detonating well over a thousand one-megaton nuclear bombs, which is a lot.

Even if you can contain that, how do you record someone’s “pattern”? That’s a lot of information. A lot. Theoretically, there’s an equation that describes every single subatomic particle in your body, but it’s a tad complex. Describing a hydrogen atom is already pretty hard, but put ten of them together and it gets fantastically complex. There are very roughly 1028 atoms in your body. That’s a big equation.

A better retcon would be to say you’re creating a subspace tube, encasing the traveler in a small force field, and plunging them through it. But even then, I don’t think subspace is quite so much real.

So: Nope.

Phasers

Phasers are like lasers but instead they start with a digraph.

OK, how they work is never really stated, but I heard from a friend who worked on Next Generation that they don’t vaporize you, they send you into subspace, where you die (see “Transporters,” above, except don’t use a force field). That’s clever, and I like it, but again with the not-real subspace.

Nope.

Artificial gravity/Inertial Dampening

These are tough. As far as we know now, there’s no way to do either (well, you can spin a spaceship to mimic gravity, but that has other complications; and besides, is clearly not what they mean by the term in Trek). These are fundamental properties of space and mass, and as far as we know, the laws of physics give these a big Nope.

Replicators

Replicators work on the idea that once you convert something to energy, you can then reconstitute it back as a different kind of matter. Cool, but transporters don’t work, so Nope.

Tricorders

Now we’re getting somewhere. Lots of things a tricorder can do we already have tech for. Infrared meters can read your temperature from a distance. Phones can listen for sounds, and do some basic image stuff too. This idea is based on reality well enough that there’s an X Prize for it.

So: Yup. Eventually, and kinda sorta now.

Communicators

Please. A device for talking to people over long distances that you have to flip open? What is this, the 2190s?

Nanotech

The idea of teeny tiny machines that can be programmed to do simple tasks doesn’t strike me as being all that far-fetched. We have some basics of this developed now. They’re a far cry from nanites escaping and taking over our (nonexistent) FTL starship, but this field is interesting. I wonder if they could be made generic such that in tandem they can do more complicated tasks. This sounds more like an engineering problem than one of physical laws, so I have to give this one a Maybe.

Force fields

The term force field is pretty generic. If you have a dense (strong) enough magnetic field it can deflect charged subatomic particles (electrons and protons) away from you, so in a sense we have those now. But something that can protect you from the force of an explosion, deflect bullets, and so on? I’m not even really sure how that would work.

But ignorance is no excuse, so to be honest I’ll give this a Maybe, just not according to what we know now.

Cloaking

I love this. YES. In principle, this can be done. You just need to deflect any photon coming at you from any direction so that once it’s past you it continues on in that direction.

Or, you could, for example, surround yourself with a device that can both detect and emit photons. It absorbs a photon, figures out what direction it came from, then finds the emitter on your opposite side and tells it to shoot off a photon of the right energy in the right direction. If you’re sitting still, and the light source isn’t changing, this should work. If you’re moving, then you better have really fast processors on your cloaking computer.

This would be very hard to build, and might be clunky, but it doesn’t violate any laws of physics, so I give this a Yes.

Universal Translator

We already have primitive but sort of effective translators online now. However, these take previously known languages and basically do really fast table lookups of the translations. This won’t work for an unknown language, let alone the squeals, grunts, clicks, whines, buzzes, pheromone exudate, cilia waving, and rapid eye blinks used in alien language. In Trek, that thing basically reads minds, so I’m pretty skeptical. Nope.

Turbolift

An elevator that goes up, down, and sideways? Willy Wonka had one of those in the 1960s.

Tractor Beam

In Next Gen they refer to the tractor beam—a device that can grab distant objects and be used to tow them—as using gravitons. These are theoretical particles that mediate the force of gravity in quantum mechanics, like photons mediate electromagnetism. However, gravitons have never been detected, and may not actually exist, which is a prerequisite for actually, y’know, existing. That doesn’t mean they don’t, it just means that a tractor beam is speculative, so I can’t give it the thumbs up here. But Maybe, someday.

Artificial Intelligence

This is a funny one. I won’t worry about the existential issues of what intelligence is, because that’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down (though in detail it’s important; is intelligence an emergent property of anything that has enough complexity, or is it something that has to be specifically built into the hard/wetware?). But if we accept that humans possess intelligence, can we replicate it in nonhuman devices?

In principle, I have to say yes. But I wonder if we’re going about it the right way. Our brains simply don’t work like computers, despite the sci-fi trope. But if we can build machines that process information more like our brains do, then perhaps intelligence will emerge.

I’m no expert, and I’m spit-balling here, but clearly it isn’t easy. I’ve been hearing that we’re just 25 years away from true AI for the past 40 years. Every time some breakthrough is made, it shows us that things are still a lot harder than we thought. Still, evolution seems to have done this naturally after just cooking slightly polluted hydrogen for a few billion years. People whose brains work a lot better than mine are working on it, too, and they seem to think it’s possible. So who am I to say no? Until proven otherwise, I’ll go with Maybe.

To Boldly Go …

So where does this leave us? Beats me. But whether the tech or the science of Trek is real or not, I still love the show. And while this stuff is fun to think about, they’re not the point of the show.

The point is the story, and the story is fun.

So: Second star on the right, and straight on ‘til morning. Engage.

Correction, July 8, 2015: This is rather funny to me, but I mistook the photo of Wil Wheaton for one I took at a convention, but it's actually from Jeff Fite. My apologies to Jeff, who notified me about the error.